When Jazz Was King
In gangster-run towns across the nation, jazz became a popular form of entertainment in nightspots that stayed open till breakfast. Especially in mob-controlled cities, such as Chicago and New York City, these speakeasies hired the best musicians.
Initially, jazz attracted a small group of avant-garde music lovers. But it soon began to attract a wider audience, including the working class.
The 1920s roared. Americans revved up cars and airplanes, embraced modernism, and rebelled against traditional cultural norms. But behind the carefree images of speakeasies, flappers, and jazz clubs were dark forces: conservative morality fought modern science, white supremacy played on fear of foreign-bred communism, and labor lost ground it had won during World War I.
Early jazz artists became celebrities, and radio helped disseminate their sounds far and wide. New Orleans’ Sidney Bechet went to Europe in 1925, playing in dance halls and revues all over France, England, Germany and even the Soviet Union.
The 1930s saw jazz start to grow up and mature into a genre of music that could adapt. This was demonstrated by the emergence of swing, a style that mixed African American musical traditions with European classical forms.
The music was popular enough for the BBC to begin broadcasting it and London nightclubs like the Bag o’ Nails, Nuthouse and Nest provided informal outlets where British musicians could hone their skills. Jazz began to be widely viewed as dance music, with more and more musicians taking on solo careers and developing their own distinctive styles.
Black musicians, meanwhile, continued to suffer from white denigration. As Maureen Anderson points out, mainstream criticism of jazz and its musicians tended to exoticize them as primitive and crude savages who encouraged listeners to revert to animalistic instincts. This would not change until the rise of the civil rights movement and a growing willingness for magazines to acknowledge that racial difference can exist within a culture.
The 1940s began with the outbreak of World War II. As the war raged, an entertainment tax hit profits for big bands and the draft cut down on available musicians. The racially segregated entertainment industry remained deeply prejudiced against black musicians, and cover photographs, fan polls and general editorial policy of jazz-specific publications such as Down Beat and Metronome favored white bands and musicians over black ones.
Nonetheless, many black jazz musicians found success in the postwar jazz environment. Black women jazz musicians, such as trumpeter Spitalny and saxophonist Billie Holiday, developed strong visual images that challenged comfortable white notions of the black maid, mammy or Jezebel. Meanwhile, Norman Granz, who owned the Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, cultivated an image for jazz as the music of the comfortable modern American living room and defied racial prejudice with his racially unbiased business model.
The onset of the 1950s brought a newfound economic prosperity that created a sense of contentment and consensus among Americans. More disposable income also enabled people to buy more things, including music records. This helped to fuel the growth of rock ‘n’ roll.
At the same time, television began to grow in popularity. Some jazz musicians began to appear on variety programs.
In the 1950s, cornetists like Louis Armstrong and trumpeter King Oliver led bands that included saxophones, clarinets, trombones, bass, piano, and drums. Big dance bands that played the new style of rhythm and blues included multiple horns, such as three saxophones. This image reduces the most exacting of artistic disciplines to an exotic and inexplicable knack, and it misses the point that mastery of modern jazz requires arduous, exhaustive training and serious theoretical study. It also obscures the fact that jazz is a rule-governed enterprise, not an improvisational art. During this period, designers like Loring Eutemey were creating covers for vinyl jazz albums that attempted to achieve a satisfying relationship between images and text.